Whatever possessed the guys at Audio Research to dump the look of the CA50 integrated amplifier when they came up with its replacement, I'll never know. That now-departed product screamed 'Audio Research!' from 30 paces, endowed as it was with a proper ARC front panel, with design cues that go back over 30 years. Instead, with the VSi55, we get hair shirt.
One might suppose, correctly, that Audio Research is simply gracing impoverished valve newbies with a taste of the products from which the VSi55 is derived. The lip-smackingly-good VS55 and VS110 power amplifiers - two stupendous products by ANY measure - are responsible for a rebirth, transforming the company from fusty to funky. The 'matching' SP16 pre-amp itself is a delicious reminder of ARC pre-amps of yore, in the most positive sense. By virtue of being nearly affordable, this trio widened the profile of ARC ownership, but we're still talking ca £5000 for the least-expensive pairing. As for the power amps, they reverted not to early ARC styling but to a wholly utilitarian, generic-1950s look of exposed tubes, exposed transformers - function over form.
All of which is very nice with power amps, because you don't have to look at them. Integrateds are another matter entirely, as you need to access the controls, so a touch of style wouldn't hurt. But then there's the price...
With a rated output of 50W/ch and a retail price of only £2895 including remote control, the VSi55 certainly undercuts any separates combination the company can offer. More interestingly, the VSi55 betters the early CA50 integrated amp it (sort of) replaces by £500. That's a helluva savings just to forego a pretty fascia. What you get here is a near-ringer for the VS55 power amplifier, but with the addition of a pre-amp section, its presence restricted to the shallow front edge of the chassis.
Because of the slight dearth of space (compared to a full-height pre-amp), all of the functions are closely grouped together as small, square buttons, with no rotary for volume: instead, you get buttons for up and down. As a result, you will find the remote to be used more often than hand-to-amp contact. Arrayed across this pitch black panel are, on the left, a cluster of green LEDs indicating volume level in 20 steps and separate LEDs for mute, mono and indication of the chosen input: CD, tuner, video and two marked SE1 and SE2, denoting single-ended line sources. Balanced operation is not part of the recipe.
In a matching segment on the right are the six 'soft touch' buttons for power, mute, mono, input select and volume up/down, in SP16 pre-amp fashion. These controls are mirrored on the slim remote. Above this panel, on the flat, horizontal surface, is a silver plate cut out for the valves; behind it are the mains and output transformers and the tops of the capacitors. Here's where things get ugly: I love retro as much as the next guy, but the finish on these made me flash back (as did the VS55) to Dynakits of 40 years back, where finish was an afterthought not allowed to compromise the sticker price. Fortunately, there's an optional tube cage for £250, which - when in place - will at least partly obscure the transformers. I was most disappointed to see that the metalwork of the review sample was actually sagging in the middle. (Then again, a retailer had the review sample before it reached me. And the cheap bastard took the batteries out of the remote.)
At the back of the 14x8x16in (WHD) chassis are five pairs of single-ended inputs, a full-range mono subwoofer output, voltmeter test points for setting bias, 0-4-8 ohm five-way binding posts, a fuse holder and an IEC mains input socket. The quality of these fittings is impossible to fault, gold-plated and robust, and there was plenty of space to enable you to fit fat cables and still have enough acreage in which to swing a spanner. Curiously, there's no tape output, but then Audio Research might just be tipping the hat to the 21st Century: nowadays, pirates record via computer straight onto their CD burners.
You will do a double take when you see this if you're familiar with its amp-only sibling. The VSi55 may be 1in taller and 2in deeper than the VS55, and the milled, anodised top plate is 1 1/2in deeper, with larger inset Audio Research logo as used on the VT series of the power amps, yet the resemblance is almost clone-like. But it's still kinda ugly.
Only it's a bargain, too. For a mere £200 more than the power-amp-only VS55, you get a dream of a 'front end' in the form of a passive control section, utilising microprocessor-controlled relays. Try finding a decent standalone pre-amp for £200. The high performance input relay paths are short, the same as those in the flagship REF2 Mkll, and the microprocessor remembers the last input selected and the stereo/mono setting when it is powered down. Switch-on is followed by a 30-second warm-up period in full mute; conveniently, the volume control resets to zero to avoid unwanted thumps or bangs.
Read more about the VSi55 on Page 2.